There aren't any Chinese tourists on Little Cayman. Yet.
This tiny atoll 90 miles from Grand Cayman and several hundred from Cuba is host to some of the best diving in the world. There are whale sharks, prehistoric monsters rising dozens of yards long from the depths then disappearing down ledges thousands of feet deep, shocking the elite divers who come here. At the moment, the entire western side of the island is taken over by the Duncan Hines family -- even our party of divers and tourists isn't allowed in the vicinity, although we got lucky and were put up in a luxury resort.
The island has a population of roughly 150 souls, many of them imported from Jamaica to do the hard labor, although recently a spattering of Hondurans have come over, too, to work more cheaply -- and to play soccer against the Jamaicans (although their employers were not aware that they would be adding this function to the island's small society). There are Australian dive masters, American recluses, Texan entrepreneurs. In fact, the whole island is peopled, apart from the imported workers, by reclusive but friendly and sometimes eccentric popular hosts of diving resorts and tourist outposts.
It is rugged and windswept, with trees the size of eggshells and lizards the size of banana peels.
But talk to the locals, the workers, the imported Jamaicans, and there is only one thing they talk about, and that is, well, football. In fact, the goalkeeper from the Jamaican national team just spent 40 minutes teaching me how to catch a ball shot at you from six yards away at 70 miles an hour. "Peacefully," he said.
When they talk of football, it is loud, their voices are confident. They recount broken arms and battles on the field.
"You know, defenders, in Jamaica, man, they always are braggin' you know, they always are sayin' stuff like, I hit that forward so hard, you know, man, I made him cry."
But when the talk turns to the economy, to jobs back home, to life back home on Jamaica, whence they must return after their seven-year work permit expires here, they talk in hushed tones, grimacing and wary. They talk, again, of one thing: this time it is the Chinese.
"The Chinese," says the national team goalie, who pulled both groin muscles and put himself out of his spot and instead came over here to work, "They own everything in Jamaica. Shoppin' malls, supermarkets, everythin'. They are puttin' up stores everywhere. And they are takin' out millions, and all the money they get, they send it back to China."
Over the past five years, the Chinese government has invested billions of dollars in the Caribbean, sending hospitality teams of government officials promising bank loans and transplanted biochemical factories to Jamaica, in particular. Last month, a major highway in Jamaica opened, financed by Beijing. While official news releases, picked up by major media, have covered all these investments, it is the private investments, of individual Chinese entrepreneurs, who have come in the wake of their government's feel-good policies that are giving the locals the jeepers.
"Now, man, you go into their stores. You lay down your money. And you know it's goin' right back to China. At least here, in the Caymans, you know the money, it's stayin' right here."
I ask him what he thinks of his decision to come to Little Cayman, fleeing the helter-skelter development of Jamaica, his home. Jamaica, these days, especially in its crowded cities, shares little in common with Little Cayman, an island that is almost entirely undeveloped, where iguanas share the streets with bicycles and a few tiny resorts spot the coast.
"I have to be goin' back in seven years, man," he says ruefully. "Over here, man, life is more like it used to be at home. I had to try somethin' new."
And when I talk to other residents of the island, the dive masters and the lone massage therapist -- who has been booked solid by the visiting tycoon family -- they express concern that all the vast wasteland of jungle on Little Cayman could someday be bought up by an "outside party."
"Almost all the land is for sale," says the massage therapist, who hails from Florida. "And we are shivering to think that it might be bought up like in other places around here."
It's not that she has anything against the Chinese, or anyone, she just wants the island to remain underdeveloped, quiet, tranquil, noiseless -- except for the crashing of the waves and the crying of the iguanas, when they don't get enough grapes to eat.
Little Cayman is not a parable or a litmus test for the future of the Caribbean and the buying power of Chinese dollars. But in the minds of the locals, there may soon be a phrase, hauntingly familiar, but with new intimations: "The Chinese are coming!"
And here I thought I could go on vacation and get away from it all -- I teach Chinese history back in the States.